Bring Mobility Back to Mobile Games

Like many gamers, I have a love hate relationship with mobile games. I never considered them “real gaming” and yet I play them a ton. I also haven’t spent a single cent on them. But by and large, I’ve spent more time playing Pokemon GO than probably any other game in my life. So it’s accurate to say that I’m a mobile gamer, among other types of gaming, and yet if someone asked me what games I’m currently playing I’d never mention any of the mobile games unless asked directly. But really mobile games are a huge part of my life and I think that’s true for most people in 2019. But I’ve come to realize that as they’ve gotten better, which they absolutely have, they’ve also started to lose what made them appealing to begin with i.e. their mobility, casual nature, and ease of access.

I recently spent two weeks traveling for my honeymoon. We went to Dubai, Germany, Switzerland, and France. Over the course of this trip, we only took two flights (four including layovers). I spent the bulk of this trip on trains and buses. I am a flawed man raised in an age of technology. That is to say that rather than sit and look at the country side or my beautiful new bride during these long moments of travel via train or bus, I spent the bulk of my time playing mobile games. Specifically I was playing Pokémon GO, Fist of the North Star Legends Revive, Pokémon Masters, Kingdom Hearts Union X, and Mario Kart Tour. What I came to realize is that all of these games, with the possible exception of Pokémon GO aren’t actually made for gamers on the go, and honestly that’s really annoying.

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Actual photo I took in Switzerland.

Mobile apps were originally created out of a need for people to fill the void and loneliness of travel via public transportation. You aren’t driving so your hands are free. And you aren’t talking to other people because in person contact between human strangers is almost as ridiculous in 2019 as in person contact between human friends. So you need something to do in often undefined bursts of time that can be played casually without requiring too much commitment. They also have to be easily picked again up after long periods of time away from them. Most importantly, they need to be playable from any location in any situation for as long as the user wants. Sadly, none of the games I was playing during this trip were really able to deliver this. Some got close, but there are just so many issues when just trying to play a game on a four hour train ride between countries. That’s one of the main reasons I was playing so many games at once.

The three main issues I encountered from these games were a constant internet connection requirement, balance issues, and time sensitive content. At face value, it doesn’t even sound like I’m describing mobile games with that list of problems. That’s just a lot of games in 2019. And that’s kind of the problem. Mobile games have started to become too much like console games. Or maybe it’s the opposite and console games have become too much like mobile games.

Mobile-Vs-ConsoleThe constant need for internet is a huge drawback. I had a full data plan while traveling so that I would be constantly connected to the internet with 20GB of data to ensure I could play at anytime from anywhere. But internet is not consistent all the time even when you do have a good data plan with high speed internet. Traveling between countries can cause data breaks. Traveling through the countryside, tunnels, and up mountains can cause data breaks. It was so annoying to be playing any of the five games I listed and suddenly lose the ability to play because the internet was bad in an area I was passing through. The games just stop with an annoying notification until the connection comes back. This is ridiculous. None of these games, with the exception of Pokemon GO in certain key instances, are directly PVP competitive. All of them, including the ones with PVP aspects, are played as single player experiences with little to no actual human interaction outside of in app message boards. And yet you need constant internet to play them all. This is just stupid. Why can I no longer play single player games on my phone without internet access? Mobile apps were adopted for gamers who had to be away from their home systems. Creating an internet requirement essentially limits the entire reason we call them mobile apps. I don’t have this problem when I’m traveling with my Switch, which I didn’t bring because I wanted to at least pretend to be an attentive husband during my honeymoon.

no-connectionThere are major balance issues in how mobile games are developed today. As you progress through these games early on, you don’t perceive the balance problems because they aren’t pronounced. It’s several hours in when you realize that something is very wrong. You’re trying to move forward in the game but you can’t because of some arbitrary level requirement, a lack of energy, or you’ve hit the daily play limit. And when that’s not the case, you still run into suddenly preposterously hard challenges once you’ve hit a certain point that you will never beat without having to take huge periods of time to farm more experience. It would be so annoying playing Mario Kart Tour and hitting a groove only to then be told I’ve reached my daily limit for coins and xp. There is literally zero reason to play Mario Kart Tour when you can’t get more coins and xp. It is the perfect example of a complete waste of time. The nature of these games is progression but for some reason they all arbitrarily choose to stop your progression when you actually have time to play. Note that I am not referring to pay walls. While there are paid items in all the games I mentioned, they were not a huge issue. Getting stuck or stopped from playing could usually be remedied with real money, but most of the time it just came down to having to do a ridiculous amount of grinding or waiting for the day to flip and recharge your ability to play.

waste of time chartBy time sensitive content I am not referring to limited access events where certain rewards would be available for a limited period of time. This did happen in Pokémon GO during the trip, but it was ultimately a non-issue. What I’m talking about is mechanics like in Mario Kart Tour where you can only do a limited number of things in a single day. This negatively affects the play two fold because it means you have to stop playing before you’re ready and you have to play every day to maximize your returns. Neither of these things works well for traveling players. Some days you have time to play and others you don’t. Some moments you have a lot of time, like when taking a three hour bus ride. But with the daily play quotas, I found myself often running out of things to do when I did have time to play for extended periods and concurrently missing out on progress opportunities on days where I didn’t have time to play. The issue here is that it’s an arbitrary limitation that in no way helps the player or enhances the gameplay experience. It’s simply a progress wall in order to make you play again the following day at the expense of the time you actually want to play more that day.

What I’ve come to realize as I play more and more mobile games is that mobile game developers, and arguably all game developers in recent years, are no longer designing games based on user behavior and desires. Instead they’re designing games based on how they want users to behave and are actively working to force players to change their behaviors or use microtransactions for the privilege to play the way they want or more accurately the way people actually play games. We have seen similar practices over the years with things like DLC and always online, but I’ve never really thought about in terms of mobile gaming before. But now we’re starting to see big developers/publishers get involved in mobile gaming such as Nintendo and Blizzard. So it makes sense that the same design flaws we’re seeing plague console game design are appearing in mobile games. But again, it’s kind of chicken and egg. Are console games negatively affecting mobile game design practices or are mobile games negatively affecting console game design practices?

diablo-mobileNow I’d like to give a short run down of each of the app games I played and my experience with them over the course of the trip.

Pokemon GO

GO Gen 3I’ve written a lot about GO in the past and even though I said I’d quit, I’m still playing it, albeit a lot more casually. And actually I have to commend them for making a number of quality of life changes that allow the game to be played more causally now. Adventure Sync has made the game way more playable at a casual level because egg and buddy candy distance are measured even when the app is closed. And you get a notification when an egg is ready to hatch. They’ve continued to add new Pokémon and Unova Pokémon were added just before I went on the trip. This motivated me to play while traveling and I did catch a number of regional Pokémon because of it. It’s the game I cared most about during the trip but also played the least. Considering I’ve been playing since day one, there’s not a whole lot left for the game to offer me except new Pokedex entries so I think it’s OK that it’s not the most compelling game for me anymore.

Mario Kart Tour

mario kart tourThis game is fun. It’s surprisingly addictive for a phone based Mario Kart game that I’m not even playing with motion controls, though it does have that option. But it’s got major balance and paywall issues coupled with one of the most irritating daily play limits I’ve ever experienced. Drivers, karts, and gliders all have independent levels and need their own xp. The xp system is weighted in an easily understood but ultimately unfairly padded way. And there are xp caps that have to be unlocked with levels that have nothing to with xp to increase. The whole system is very annoying and riddled with the need for microtransactions. Xp matters in Mario Kart Tour because your position in the races is irrelevant. What matters for progression is your score. And that’s directly affected by the xp level of your driver, kart, and glider. Each level has five possible stars but first place isn’t enough to obtain all five. You have to level up your gear in order to get enough points to get all the stars. But with a daily xp cap this becomes very difficult. Coins are also crucial to unlock additional gear and level up gear you already have but there’s a 300 coin daily limit, which makes no logical sense. Especially when you consider top tier drivers cost 3,000 coins to unlock. That means playing 10 days at maximum returns, not counting bonuses, to obtain a new top tier driver without spending real money. But most drivers in the store disappear after a day so you are constantly up against the wall for coins. The daily challenge system is also atrocious with a maximum of three at one time and a cool down rate of two days. Really they’re not even daily challenges. You finish them and then have to wait forever to get more.  The cool down rate should be like three hours tops and there should be no daily limits on coins or xp. It’s a great game ruined by greed. I will say though that the weekly tier challenges system and the tour rotation system are both implemented really well.

Pokémon Masters

Pokemon Masters CoverI reviewed this game previously and I have to say that it’s one of the most misleading games I’ve ever played when you compare day one to day thirty. The game starts off seeming very fair and practical but once you get far enough you realize it’s terribly unbalanced, especially from a numerical standpoint, and it’s a mess of a grind. Later stages are so unbalanced that even when you outclass the enemy team by more than 2,000 points you still get owned so much of the time. The auto battle AI is absolutely atrocious. The limitations by type make it impossible to form a core team, which maybe isn’t the worst thing, but the large amount of grinding required to make Pokémon strong becomes such a chore when you have to do it for more than 20 Pokémon. And there are daily limits for certain resources as well. Plus the money system is absolutely ridiculous. The costs of certain required items are so high that it can take months to evolve a Pokémon. I already finished all the current story missions, which I’m fine with, but I have little motivation to keep playing because grinding is boring and the progress is so slow to get my sync pairs where I want them to be. 300 special items to increase a level cap is just not worth it. Especially when doing so still won’t guarantee that you’re strong enough to beat enemies with noticeably lower stats on paper. It was a good idea with interesting concepts but the execution is so terribly flawed all in the pursuit of microtransactions.

Kingdom Hearts Union X

khuxI honestly need to stop playing this game. I started it like three years ago to prepare for Kingdom Hearts III and the only reason I’m still playing it is that I haven’t beaten Kingdom Hearts III yet. I’ll happily delete it once I finish that game. KHUX is a game that gives you lots of hours of play that’s fulfilling and enjoyable as you progress in strength through RPG and gotcha mechanics built on grinding. You can become fairly strong with no microtransactions. But there is a progress wall and once you hit it the game becomes an absolute bore. The highest levels of play require too much studying of stats and special techniques. You have to tailor seven member teams for specific situations and no matter how strong you get it’s never enough to excel once you reach the later game. The story mode is quite fulfilling for a long time but once you reach a certain point it’s just an exercise in monotony while occasionally doing bonus events for little more than additional costumes and the supposed potential to become stronger but it’s never strong enough. I definitely got a lot of hours out of the game, but I wish I had finished Kingdom Hearts III and stopped playing sooner so the good experience I had wouldn’t have turned sour in the extreme late game I’m in now.

Fist of the North Star Legends Revive

FotNS ReviveThis is one of the best RPG app games I’ve ever played. It’s a turn based RPG with strong combat and development mechanics. But I can already see the long term flaws it has. The gear and character development systems run very deep and require a lot of attention to detail. The fluid party system coupled with tailored events allows you to have favorite party members but also motivates you to use other characters in a way that isn’t annoying or sleazy. The story mode is also really great in retelling the manga. And the graphics are really good. The auto system works fairly well also. The daily rewards system pays out a lot, motivating you to want to come back every day. But there are no daily caps making you not want to play past the basic daily content. The major flaw of the game comes from its level caps. Or more accurately the slow progression of levels over time. When you’re under level 30 the game seems perfect. You level up at a fair rate. You unlock lots of new things as you play. You’re constantly improving your stats both for individual fighters in your party and as a group. And there’s plenty to do. The problems arise when you get to the higher levels of play. The level caps become really annoying and level progression becomes extremely slow and grindy once you get past level 30. I’m strong enough to beat the next chapter of the story mode as far as stats and there are items I require to improve my team to the next level of play. But because of the level caps I’m stuck slowly amassing xp trying to unlock access to the next chapter. The item needs are way too high in the late game as well, slowing development and unlocking of additional characters to a crawl. I can see the potential to get to the highest levels of play but doing it without microtransactions has already started to feel like a slog after less than two months of play. This is a really good game but a few slight tweaks could make it something great.

All of these games started off very strong. But greed and mismanagement have made me irritated with most of them for reasons that just didn’t have to be included. I’m really impressed with how much mobile games have improved since I was playing Snake on a Nokia. But the greed and flawed design choices used to make players return daily has ruined some potentially really great gaming experiences.

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Pokemon Masters Review

A few weeks ago, the mobile game Pokemon Masters released. I have been playing the Android version since the day the game launched. As I actually have been playing it a decent amount, I thought it would be informative for others if I took the time to write a review of it. I rarely if ever review mobile games but I play them quite frequently so I feel that I’m experienced enough to judge the game fairly, and hopefully accurately considering the many hidden features the game has.

The first thing that needs to be said about Pokemon Masters is that it’s not a full Pokemon game. Pokemon, as in the original/core series, is an RPG that’s constructed based on two major aspects of play: capturing and battling. The core experience is entertaining because it challenges players to locate and ultimately capture Pokemon to then be trained and used for battle. It’s only by mastering both skills that one can truly master the games. Since the two mechanics are directly linked and both are required to beat the games, the gameplay never really gets old within each individual game. You can jump between exploring to capture and battling to train/improve your Pokemon to your heart’s content. This formula works and has for 20 years across like 10 generations of Pokemon games plus remakes, with a new one coming in just a couple months (Pokemon: Sword & Shield). That’s why the basic mechanics of Pokemon games haven’t really changed that much in all this time.

trainersThe problem with mobile Pokemon games is that they never get both parts right. Pokemon GO, which I’m still playing, gets the capturing portion almost perfectly. But the battles are garbage. They aren’t turn based and have almost no RPG elements to them in practical terms. Pokemon Masters, on the other hand, gets battling down fairly well, with a streamlined but working RPG system to boot, but the capturing aspect is pretty much non-existent. I believe this is intentional on both counts. Because while Nintendo does want you to play their free to play mobile games, they want you to buy their consoles and console games more. So no true Pokemon experience ever gets produced on mobile and I doubt one ever will.

Pokemon Masters is set on the man-made island of Pasio. On this island they hold a special tournament called the Pokemon Masters League (PML). The PML is not a traditional battle of two trainers and up to 12 Pokemon. Instead you battle with Pokemon & Trainer pairs, referred to as “Sync Pairs”, in three on three battles. As such, you do not capture Pokemon. Instead you meet and recruit other trainers and when they join you one of their Pokemon becomes available for you to use in battle as part of that Sync Pair. Trainers from all over the world have come to Pasio to form these Sync Pairs and teams or Sync Pairs in order to win the PML. Your character’s partner Pokemon is a Pikachu. This is the backdrop of the entire game.

pokemon-mastersThe main gameplay works at its core aspects. You battle three on three Pokemon battles with a great many exceptions where your opponents are allowed to have more than three members on their team. In this situation, only three Pokemon appear on the front line of battles and then they’re quickly replaced once you defeat the Pokemon at the front of the line. You are always shown how many Sync Pairs are on the opposing team at the start of a battle. Placement plays a role in this for opponents but not really for you because so far you can only take a maximum of three Pokemon into battle. You can choose their placement order on the field, as in left, right, or middle, but you aren’t able to control the order in which they’re attacked because all three are on the field at the same time. Your opponent can attack whichever of your three they want to at any time. And they often do attacks that hurt all three simultaneously.

Battles are not turn based. Instead they’re real time action point based like in Final Fantasy XIII. You have an AP bar constantly filling at the bottom of the screen based on time. It’s broken into sections. Each attack costs the entire team a certain number of those sections. In this way you must manage your three Pokemon and use their moves effectively in order to knock out all the opposing team’s Pokemon before yours are all knocked out. Battles have no time limit. Each Pokemon & Trainer pair can learn up to four techniques. From what I’ve seen so far, this is always two attacks and two status altering techniques. Status techniques can do different things such as heal, increase attack power, increase speed, refill AP bars, and so on. They can also be used to induce negative effects on opponents such as poison or confusion. Attacks and status techniques for each Pokemon are all predetermined and cannot be changed, to the best of my current knowledge playing the game.

pokemon-masters-battleDuring battle, each team has a sync move counter. Sync moves are special high damage attacks that are specific to each Sync Pair. You initiate them by running the sync move counter down to zero from nine. After using a sync move, the counter refills to nine. Certain Sync pairs seem to be able to affect the sync pair counter’s number and speed, but I have only witnessed this from enemy teams and haven’t been able to create these affects for my own team yet. Both attacks and status techniques run down the counter, but status techniques don’t require any AP to use. This affects strategy because you have to account for both damage and trying to get the sync counter to zero as quickly as possible. Matches are often lost because the enemy team got their sync move out first. Status techniques may not take AP but they still take time to cast so you are delaying your next attack by using them. Both teams have the sync counter showing so it’s important to watch the other team’s counter in order to prepare yourself for an upcoming sync move. Sync moves can be used an unlimited number of times during battle but so far I’ve never used them more than twice in any one battle.

When battling, you must consider time, attack points, and the opposing team’s weaknesses. Attacks must be targeted at a specific Pokemon by a specific Pokemon. You can easily change both attacker and target by pressing the new Pokemon you want to attack with or target. The opposing team will not attack based on who you’re currently using to attack. They will just attack based on the AI’s strategy, which is often quite effective and not just at random. The enemy AI will take into account weaknesses, status techniques, and sync moves as well. So it’s in your best interest to attack with the right Pokemon against the right target as quickly as possible while accounting for status techniques and sync moves during the process. The most common mistake I make in battle is using a sync move on the wrong Pokemon because I forget to change my target based on weakness to the Pokemon type using the sync move. There’s also an auto function where the game will battle for you with the team you selected, but as with most games the AI will not battle intelligently when being used from your side. It’s extremely annoying.

sync pairsWhile battle teams can only include three Sync Pairs and thus Pokemon at a time, your total team can include an unlimited number of Sync Pairs. The way to excel in battle is to pick the right set of three Sync Pairs to construct a team that will best take advantage of the weaknesses of the opposing team. The game always tells you what the most effective Pokemon types are for the upcoming battle based on the type weaknesses of the opposing team. You do not have to include your character, and his/her Pikachu, in your battle team. This is extremely important because electric types are not always the best choice for battle.

Trainers can be added to your team in two ways. They can be acquired as part of the story or unlocked in the store. The plot based trainers cannot be skipped. They are added as you progress through the story and meet them. Store bought trainers are from loot boxes that you can buy with gems. There are two types of gems: paid and non-paid. You can get non-paid gems from completing tasks, battles, and missions. Tasks are basically just story progression moments that require you to talk to people to progress the story forward. This is all on rails and can be easily clicked through if you aren’t interested in the story. Missions are constantly added goals that can be completed at any time. They can be anything from win a certain number of battles to spend a certain amount of coins in the store. The non-paid gems can only be used to purchase certain types of loot boxes. Paid loot boxes on average net better trainers. You can get the same trainer from loot boxes more than once. Each time you get a repeat, it strengthens that trainer’s sync move up to five. I don’t know what happens when you get a repeat trainer a sixth time, or even if you can.

pokemon-masters-screenTrainers/Sync Pairs are given a star rating. I’m not exactly sure what the rating denotes because some higher ranked trainers have worse Pokemon than trainers with lower star ranks. 5 stars is currently the top rank a trainer can have. Trainers can also be upgraded with special items that have to be collected by playing the game or bought in the store with coins. Sync Pairs have a level, like how Pokemon do in the core games. As you battle and use XP items, you can increase the level of your participating trainers and ultimately the stats of their Pokemon in battle. But each trainer has a level cap based on their star rating. The cap for three star trainers, the most common I’ve seen, is only 30, which is really disappointing. But you can use items to increase the level caps. The item cost isn’t terrible for this process. But the cost to increase a Sync Pairs star rating is ridiculous by comparison. You can quickly max out characters to the starting level 30 cap by using the very abundant minimum XP boost items. But once you get to the higher level caps, maxing out Sync Pairs requires way more XP which means lots of spending or lots of grinding. Trainers with a higher star rating can level up higher to start. You must also use items to unlock additional moves for Sync pairs. All of them start out with one attack and one status technique and have to have the other two moves unlocked. The first additional move is really easy to unlock but the second requires way more rare items. I have yet to unlock the final attack/technique for a single Sync Pair.

Pokemon in the game come from all over the world, as do the trainers that partner with them. All regions and types are represented. Some trainers have basic Pokemon and others you recruit will already have them evolved. Pokemon also differ in rarity. The story mode quickly netted me Starmie (Misty), Torkoal (Flannery), and Lucario (Korrina) with Misty (Starmie) and Brock (Onix) being the first two trainers I recruited.

rock training eventSome Pokemon can be evolved. But the process and cost of evolving is very high and will take a very long time for free players. You have to max out a Trainer with a Pokemon capable of evolving. Then you have to unlock the evolve mission for that Pokemon. You do this as soon as you win a battle with the maxed out Sync Pair. Then you have to purchase five evolve shards from the store. These require spending coins, the basic currency in the game. So you need to be smart when choosing which Pokemon to evolve because it will take you a while as a free player. Thankfully, most of the Pokemon currently available in the game are not able to evolve.

Along with the story mode there are also special timed events. These are basically just additional story chapters that don’t affect the main story but net additional items and xp. They can also be great a deal harder than the normal story mode levels. Currently only two of these events has been made available in the game so far; one focused on training and the other story. The story based on has a fairly lengthy completion time limit/window so pretty much everyone will be able to finish it if they started in the opening weeks of the game.

pokemon-masters-teamsVisually speaking, Pokemon Masters is very solid for a mobile game. The art style looks a lot like the anime, which all the main characters come from. It’s 2D but mimics 3D in certain elements. The colors are vibrant and clear and the UI is fairly manageable. The menus are a bit cluttered and lack more detailed descriptions that would be quite helpful, but in general it’s a manageable design. What’s nice is how fluid the battles look. Attacks look like the actual elemental attacks they should be. And you can tell how effective attacks were with visual and written cues on the life bars floating above each Pokemon. I would say the Pokemon models look better in Pokemon GO, but Pokemon Masters has a lot more detail overall. Especially in the people and settings.

The writing is actually a very complete story, thus far. I’m only on the 10th introductory chapter as I write this and I’ve already met quite a few characters and learned a lot about them and the island of Pasio. The motivation for the characters is all to win the PML but their personal reasons are each specific and developed. Each trainer also has their own optional side missions to help develop them as a character. There are villains, rivals, bullies, and impressive trainers for the characters to look up to. It seems like a full-fledged Pokemon story. At the same time though, there is quite a lot of dialog that I simply don’t care about. Because much of it is character development that within this context doesn’t really matter. I care about the island, the villains and their motivations, and what I have to do to find and battle the best trainers. I don’t care about the fact that some random trainer with a Pokemon I don’t want because I already have better ones is fighting to make their grandfather proud but is also learning to not let other people’s expectations define them. The game is written much like the show. Except it’s a game on your phone presented with text based dialog. So it gets rather boring, takes a long time to read, and since it is a mobile game I’m often playing it passively while doing something else.

special eventI think the developers were aware of this writing conundrum for players because the structure of the game is well defined and very convenient. The game is broken up into chapters. Each chapter is broken up into sections. Each section can be entered specifically and intentionally. They can also all be replayed. Sections clearly state what aspect of gameplay they are. Some are labeled story. These are just dialog. Some are labeled battle and tell you how many battles will occur within that section. HP and status techniques reset at the end of each section but not between battles within a single section. So it’s important to manage things like your limited number of heals when playing a section with multiple battles. Some sections are labeled boss. These are single battle sections with a very strong opponent, usually at the end of a chapter. This organization system works because it allows the player to rush through story moments if they don’t care without having to redo them if they lose a battle.

The game also features a training area but it’s not very clear about what it’s supposed to be used for. There are lots of different types of training sections but only the ones marked XP seem to have any value. The other ones don’t improve your trainers in any way that I’ve been able to recognize. They just help you practice different battle scenarios. Or at least that’s how it seems. This is another example of how the game needs clearer text descriptions in the menus. One of the major problems with training battles is that they, like with the main story missions, are Pokemon type specific. Meaning you either have to use the same Pokemon over and over again or be strong enough to win without taking advantage of types and weaknesses. This gets way more difficult to accomplish in the higher difficulty training levels.

 

Pokemon-Masters-Increase-PotentialOne thing I really don’t like in general about Pokemon Masters is all the hidden features. There are things that are required to progress through the game effectively that simply aren’t explained clearly. Level caps is a good example of this. I had no idea that you could raise level caps until I had already reached the initial cap for several Sync Pairs. There are also other hidden features that can be used to make your Sync Pairs stronger, but they’re often hidden. Some can’t even be unlocked until later in the game.

I’m not far enough in yet to be able to speak on the game’s replay value. I can say that I’ve yet to replay anything that I had already beaten except the XP training sections. The game also is already running special additional timed story events so at this point it seems like any other mobile game where the idea is to keep playing and experiencing additional content rather than replay old things you’ve already completed.

Pokemon-Masters-League-BadgeUltimately the battle system is quite good and the main reason I’ve continued playing the game. I enjoy the challenge of the battles and like the fact that I don’t always win but can usually identify what mistakes I made that caused me to lose. But while the battle system is good, the game does have a number of problems. The low starting level cap is terrible when coupled with the fact that the game doesn’t clearly tell you how to raise your level cap. I played several hours thinking I was stuck at level 30 until I finally got pushed up against a difficulty wall and had to Google it to confirm that the caps could be raised and how to do it. I also really hate that there’s a divide between free and paid gems. It should work like most mobile games where the in game currency is standardized and can be used to buy anything but you can get more of it quicker by spending real money, if you want to. They also need to make evolving Pokemon and Sync Pair star levels much less costly and inconvenient.

As I said early in this review, Pokemon Masters really feels like only half the experience of an authentic core Pokemon game. It has the battles and some of the training, but none of the discovering and catching random wild Pokemon. It definitely works as a stepping stone to keep me focused on Pokemon while I wait for Sword and Shield. And there’s still some aspects of the game I haven’t fully tapped into yet, or at least that’s how it seems. If you’re looking for a mobile game that keeps you coming back but doesn’t require the inconvenience of Pokemon GO, where you have to move around to play the game, this isn’t a bad option.

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Finally Caught ‘Em All

I started playing Pokémon GO on July 7th, 2016. That was the very first day that the app was available for download here in Taiwan. I started with the declared goal of catching ‘em all. Let me clarify that for me that only includes the original 151 Pokémon from the base set in the Kanto region. For me, that’s Pokémon. I started with Red and Blue (and Yellow), played through Gold and Silver, and then stopped playing. I’ve never really had an interest in the Pokémon past the original set, with a few special exceptions. So for me Pokémon GO was always about catching Bulbasaur to Mew. I finally accomplished this feat last week after 1 year and 9 months of continuous play. By continuous play I mean playing every day without fail, often for hours at a time. I’ve walked 2,411.3 km, caught 21,123 Pokémon, and spun 24,745 PokéStops. Finally I’m done. And let’s be very honest. There are players who have walked, caught, and spun way more than me and still don’t have all 151. That’s not a good thing.

Badges

I am a serious gamer. By serious I don’t mean I spend a ton of hours gaming, even though I do. I don’t mean I own and buy a lot of games, even though I do. And I certainly don’t mean that I play PVP at competitive level, which anyone who reads this blog or follows me on Twitter knows I absolutely don’t, because I hate PVP. What I mean when I refer to myself as a serious gamer is that I take my gaming seriously. As in I think about and play with a consciously serious mindset. I’m not the type of person to say things like “as long as it’s fun that makes it a good game”. I’m not the kind of person who buys a game, plays it for 30 minutes, gets bored, and then moves on to another game. I play games with intent and I think about them critically at pretty much all times. I set target goals for the games I play to specifically define when I’ll consider myself finished with them and what I need to accomplish before I stop playing them. This is true regardless of genre, platform, or hours spent. Some games I play with an achievement based goal like how I platinum every single Ratchet & Clank game that gets released. Sometimes I play just to get to the end of the single player story campaign like with most of the Final Fantasy games. Even with multiplayer PVP games I tend to set a target goal like achieve prestige level 1 in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. And as I’ve already stated, with Pokémon GO my goal was to catch all 151 base set Pokémon.

At the end of most games I complete, regardless of what my goal is/was, I’m usually happy to finally be done with them. With such a long backlog, I really like to clear games as quickly as possible. And some games are so long that by the time I get to the end of them I’m just completely burned out. But every so often when I reach the end of a game I want to play more but there’s nothing left for me to do. With most games I play, this occurs only when the game is very good, such as with Super Mario Odyssey. But for the first time in my life, it’s the opposite situation. I have finished a game, Pokémon GO, and would like to play it more but won’t because it’s not a good game.

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Pokémon GO is not a good game. I have played hundreds, maybe even a couple thousand, hours. I’ve played in four different countries. Though I’ve never spent money in the game itself, I’ve spent more than my fair share to play it with travel fees, phone data fees abroad, and of course time spent. With all this experience under my belt, and of course the many years of gaming and reviewing games I have and had long before ever playing Pokémon GO, I can say without hesitation that it’s not a good game. If not for my serious commitment to gaming with a purpose and completing my declared goals, I would have stopped playing months ago. I have grown to love catching Pokémon just like I did as a kid and genuinely would like to keep playing the game because there are still more Pokémon for me to catch and new ones being added in the future, even if I don’t have any sort of personal connection to the later gens. But there are just too many problems for me to keep wasting my time with this game considering how many other games there are to play.

Mew

The saddest thing of all about Pokémon GO is that it doesn’t have to be a bad game. Niantic willfully makes it so. At its core level, it’s actually a pretty solid game. Certainly one of the best mobile games I’ve ever played. But the higher level mechanics are just wrong on so many levels. Almost all of which come down to a combination of greed and gameplay padding in order to arbitrarily increase play time. With just a few simple fixes this game could be something good that wouldn’t be constantly hemorrhaging players as it has since at least gen two. It could very easily be fun and playable for more than just us committed hard core players, and again the fixes necessary aren’t rocket science. The most important being adding PvE coins and rare candies, wild Legendary spawns, rotating spawns in any given area, removing all regionally specific Pokémon (as in distributing all Pokémon to all regions), making incubators acquirable at all levels by spinning PokéStops in unlimited quantities, prioritizing hatches to Pokémon players actually need, and adding trading, which in all honesty would become unnecessary if all the other changes mentioned were implemented.

Pokemon-GO-Money

What it really comes down to is that Pokémon GO plays like a game that only considers paid players. Like with most things by EA today . . . cough Star Wars Battlefront II cough . . ., it demands you to spend money not just to make the game better but to even make it manageable. I’ve been playing since day 1, yet I only have 500 spots in my PokéBank. I believe the current maximum is 1500 spots. Really these spots should be free, but instead they cost coins. Coins can only be acquired through sitting on gyms. Depending on where you are, this can be extremely easy or extremely difficult. For me, a person living in literally one of the most competitive GO cities in the world, Taipei, with no gyms that can be reached without leaving my block, it’s very difficult to get on and more importantly stay on a gym. And when I can there’s of course the 50 coin limit so I can’t even get my maximum potential coins in those extremely rare moments where I can actually keep a gym for several hours. For my friend, who literally lives on top of a gym, he has never gone a day since the latest gym update where he didn’t get his 50 coins. He of course has the maximum number of PokéBank spots available, even though he too is a free player. Of my 631 eggs hatched, I would say maybe 20% of them were Pokémon I could actually use. That’s Pokémon I needed to add to my Pokédex. This low number is due at least in part to the fact that I have such a limited number of incubators as a free player and the fact that I tend to get 5k eggs, which are the absolute least useful eggs in the game. Of the four Pokémon, not counting regionals, that I still need to hatch in order to finish the current available Pokédex, only one is available from a 5k egg and I have never hatched a single one. And to be honest, I’ve only seen one in the wild, which I caught. For the record, that Pokémon is Lileep. For the most part, these are all super easy fixes that would drastically improve the gameplay experience for pretty much all players, other than those who are willing to spend tons of money and can travel the world to catch a single Pokémon. But sadly those are the only players that Niantic considers when developing the game.

*After writing this but before I published it, I did see a second Lileep in the wild, which I caught, so I have actually now seen 2 Lileeps in the game.

GO Gen 3
Still missing Cradily, Flygon, Salamence, and Metagross.

Free players and casual players matter in Pokémon GO, as well as every other game with multiplayer elements. The fact is that GO makes a ton of money, but the percentage of paid players is relatively low. Yet if all the free players stopped playing the game would literally cease to work. You couldn’t have working gyms without players to fill them. You couldn’t complete raids without players to help. The game cannot work without your free player base because that makes up the majority of players that give all the paid players a reason to spend money in order to be competitive. So really it’s in the best interests of Niantic to do everything they can to keep free players happy enough to keep playing the game. The truth is that GO only still exists because of the popularity of Pokémon. If this was just a random game about catching monsters no one knew about it would have already collapsed due to the terrible management of the app. These flaws are why I cannot happily play this game anymore even though I would very much like to.

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Let me be very clear about something. I don’t expect Niantic to fix their game. In fact I’m confident they won’t. But what I do hope for is that this post and others like it by gamers as serious as I am are seen by other developers looking to make similar games and hopefully they will take my feedback to heart when designing their own games. It’s not just about hour 1. It’s about hour 100. Mobile games like this only work with long term, dedicated players and many of them. As I said before, GO, in its current form, wouldn’t still be a thing if it didn’t have the advantage of Pokémon. We will soon be getting Jurassic World Live and I will be playing it. I haven’t decided what my goal for it is yet because I don’t know enough about it, but I do hope that the developers do a better job than Niantic at making a game that’s actually fun after the honeymoon period ends for all players, whether paid or free.

For the record, I have causally continued playing Pokémon GO at a drastically lower level of play since catching all 151 while I wait for Jurassic World Live to drop. Can’t say for how much longer that will be the case.

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Pokémon GO in Taiwan – Catching Mewtwo

I’m a serious Pokémon GO player. If you follow me on Twitter, you probably know this. If you follow me on Instagram, you probably think it’s all I play because I rarely post pictures of anything else. To be fair, that’s only because you can only post pictures to Instagram from mobile so posting console screenshots takes more effort than it’s worth. I consider myself a hardcore player . . . for an American. I’m a level 36. I’ve walked 2,121 km. I’ve caught 18,704 Pokémon.  My Pokédex is at 342 (149 Kanto/96 Johto/97Hoenn) of 384 currently available spots. Though I wouldn’t give a single red cent to a company as shady and predatory as Niantic, I have definitely spent money to play this game. I’ve purchased multiple phone holders to play while biking. It took three tries before I finally found one that was perfect for playing while riding. I’m on my second charge bank because my first one died. I’ve purchased data in multiple countries so I could play while on vacation. Literally this week I spent $60 for a roundtrip train ticket so I could participate in the Chiayi Lantern Festival Safari Zone event just so I can finally catch a Mr. Mime. I am a serious Pokémon GO player . . . for an American. But I don’t live in America. I live in Taiwan.

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Taiwan is like the eSports league of Pokémon GO. And that’s speaking as someone who has played in multiple countries such as the United States, Hong Kong, and Thailand. I have witnessed things in this country pertaining to GO that most people will not believe because the stories sound too ridiculous to be true. If you’ve ever seen one of those ridiculous anime about a sport or game like Prince of Tennis or Hikaru no Go where everyone in the show seems to take something way unimportant way too seriously, that’s Pokémon GO in Taiwan. I genuinely believe the rules of the current game are not suitable or fair for play in Taiwan and that Niantic should change the way the game works in this country just to make it fair for the majority of players. I have played every single day without fail since the day the game became available in Taiwan. Since they changed the gym system I have amassed a measly 500 coins. This is unfair. It should not be this hard for someone who plays as much as I do with Pokémon as strong as I have to get coins. But it is because the level of play here is so competitive that unless you live on a gym, it’s nearly impossible to amass coins at a practical rate of return. I wish we could go back to the days of getting 10 coins a day for getting onto a gym. That’s hard enough in this country. To have to hold it for several hours to get a decent amount of coins is ridiculously hard. Not impossible, but way too hard for every free player to get a fair amount of coins. And the cash players are definitely holding gyms much of the time.

The things I have seen are preposterous. I’ve seen a literal syndicate of players controlling a mile long stretch of gyms that isn’t in a residential area at past 1 AM. I’ve seen a biker gang of players roving the streets looking for new catches. I’ve seen elderly couples raid like it’s their job. It is normal behavior here to have multiple accounts and multiple phones to play them on. And it’s no particular age group in Taiwan. Players come in all ages in both genders and play all hours of the day. I once snuck into a school yard at 11 PM to catch a Gen 3 basic only to find 20 other people already inside the school yard to catch the same thing. I’ve seen traffic stopped because a Lapras appeared. I’ve seen a crowd of over 100 people stampede for a single Dratini. There have even been stories on the news in the US about people playing GO in Taiwan because the player base is that hardcore here that it’s newsworthy. Playing seriously in Taiwan is like constantly playing Smash Bros. at EVO level. So let me tell about my most recent crazy Pokémon GO experience.

 

Pokemon Zombies
Pokemon GO mob I witnessed first hand.

Mewtwo is currently the hardest Pokémon in the game to acquire. I won’t say he’s one of the hardest to catch, because he actually has a very fair throw distance, a very readable attack animation, and he’s not too much harder than any other Legendary raid Pokémon to battle. I do think he’s a little harder battle wise, but he can be brought down with a party of 10. The reason he’s so hard to acquire is that you can only get him from an EX Raid. An EX Raid is like any other raid except you need a special EX Raid Pass to participate. This pass is given several days in advance at “random” and requires you to attend a specific raid at a specific gym at a specific time. This is non-negotiable. Meaning in my case that I had to take time off work to attend this EX Raid because for some reason Niantic decided that it’s ok to do that at 11 AM on a Monday morning. This was my first EX Pass. I honestly didn’t even think they had them in Taiwan because I’d never seen one and I’d never seen a Mewtwo raid before. Niantic has shown regional biases time and time again, so it made perfect sense to me to assume there were no EX Raids in Taiwan. I was proven wrong in this belief when I finally did attend this first EX Raid because multiple people there already had multiple Mewtwos, which I consider highly unfair considering how hard it is to get an EX Pass and how many people actually do play the game seriously here that may never get one. But in any case, I finally had an EX Pass and I was determined to finally catch a Mewtwo.

EX Pass
My first, but hopefully not last, EX Pass.

I showed up at the gym an hour early hoping to take the gym for my team (GO Team Mystic!) so that I could get extra balls to capture Mewtwo with. I was not the only one who had this idea, but not enough of us were present this early to be able to take this gym from what I can only assume were some very dedicated cash players because we couldn’t knock off a single Pokémon. We spent 30 straight minutes and they just kept healing everything on the gym with gold berries. I had believed there was a finite number of berries a Pokémon could be given based on my own past experiences but if this is true it didn’t apply here because they healed their first defender well over 10 times before I finally gave up. And other people kept playing for the rest of the hour unable to make a dent.

By the 30 minute mark, there were at least 40 people there waiting for that Mewtwo raid. By the time it started, there were easily more than 50. Again, this was a Monday morning at 11 AM. Just about everyone there was a middle aged working class person. This raid was in my neighborhood, which is almost entirely low or working middle class. But we do have homeless people as well and yes a number of them also play Pokémon GO. Once this crowd arrived, they began coordinating like I’ve only ever dreamed. They weren’t there to compete. They were there to catch Mewtwo and ideally everyone present was going to catch a Mewtwo. They were splitting up into color based teams and taking counts to make sure every group had enough to beat the raid. It was immaculate. It was what I’ve always dreamed of not just in Pokémon GO but in gaming in general. Whether mobile, console, or PC I have never seen this level of fast paced coordination for a game between complete strangers before. And that’s the important part. These were all random people who didn’t really know each other save for the fact that they all live and catch Pokémon in this same neighborhood. I’ve played The Division, Destiny, Assassin’s Creed multiplayer, Mass Effect 3 and Andromeda, and many other online multiplayer titles. I run a league in Injustice 2 Mobile. I have never seen a group of completely random players in any game on any platform coordinate this seriously, this successfully, and this well so quickly ever before in my more than 20 years of gaming. The only other time I can remember a group getting close was in Ayakashi Ghost Guild, an older mobile game, when I was running a guild and this was not random. It took several weeks to get this group of 20 people playing well together and in time with each other.

Ayakashi-Ghost-Guild-810x456Now all of this was taking place in Mandarin, because I’m in Taiwan. I don’t speak Mandarin. So I wasn’t part of this whole team up scenario. I was just going to join a random group and hope for the best. A random person walked up to me, speaking almost no English, but was able to ask me what color my team was. Upon hearing that I didn’t have a team, without being asked he took it upon himself to find me a “blue” team. I was placed with nine other players who were all Team Mystic. A few of them spoke some English. The first question they asked me was how many accounts I had and upon hearing only one were almost shocked.

Now I’m an American. That means I’m very selfish and even more impatient. This group of 10, including myself, coordinated a private lobby once the raid started. The problem was one of the players got an error but for some reason seemed to either not know that when you error out of a raid you can rejoin the same group even if the battle has already started. He was acting as the leader so he made us all leave the raid and make a new lobby. This irritated me, but I did it. Then it happened two more times and I started to get really frustrated because this was my first and possibly only chance ever to get a Mewtwo. EX Raids only last about 45 minutes and as people complete them you lose potential help. So it’s imperative that you finish the battle as soon as possible. By the third time this happened, I voiced my concern that nine of us were losing out on our chance to catch Mewtwo because this one guy’s phone wasn’t working. I even tried to explain that he could just rejoin the battle without us ending the fight and starting over (also wasting more healing items) but he claimed this wasn’t the case. I reluctantly exited the battle again. Then my phone errored out and everyone quit again, which I was thankful for but as an American still found completely ridiculous. Now it’s one thing if you already have a Mewtwo because if things don’t work out you’re not affected that badly by it. But if you don’t have one, the prospect of not getting one because you couldn’t even get through the battle because of other people sounds insane, because it is. But finally we all got into the fight, no one errored, and we beat Mewtwo. By this time basically everyone not on our team was already gone, probably to work.

 

Mewtwo battle

I had looked up videos for catching Mewtwo online, but you never really know what to expect till you’ve experienced it firsthand. We got 10 premier balls, which I consider the shitty jungle balls of Pokémon GO, to catch Mewtwo. I had plenty of gold berries so that wasn’t an issue. I threw six beautiful throws and landed all of them with a good or better. No catches. With only four throws left and many past experiences of raids screwing me over unrightfully, I was really stressed out about not catching Mewtwo. My hands were literally shaking. This guy, who was on the team, walked up to me and asked if I had caught it yet. I told him no. Upon seeing I had four throws left, he asked if he could give it a throw. Since he had literally just caught two Mewtwos with his accounts, I said sure take a throw. He waited about two minutes and then with his thumb, which I find crazy, he did a perfect curve ball in the dead center of Mewtwo’s catch window while it was at its literal smallest point and caught the Mewtwo first try. And he didn’t have to look. As soon as the ball landed on Mewtwo he handed me my phone and said there you go congrats on your first Mewtwo. It was the most epic, surreal mobile gaming experience I’ve ever had.

My 1st Mewtwo
My first Mewtwo!

Every one checked to make sure everyone else had caught Mewtwo, compared CP levels, thanked each other, and went on their way. This was not competition. It was collectivism. It was not a group of selfish individuals taking advantage of each other for the same goal. It was a team working together for a common goal. Everyone wins or nobody does. It was serious. It was noble. It was impressive. It was professional caliber play. It was Pokemon GO in Taiwan.

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